Paoletti: You can't play scared


Paoletti: You can't play scared

INDIANAPOLIS -- "Messing up? You can't play this game scared to mess up."

Stephen Gostkowski drives the point home. After the AFC Championship he said didn't want to keep talking about Billy Cundiff. But later, safe at a Super Bowl media session, he acquiesced.

Thrill seekers wanted details.

Cundiff's moment was grotesque. The Patriots might have gone to the Super Bowl even if they'd had to play overtime against Baltimore, but they definitely went because the Ravens' kicker shanked the game-tying field goal.

32 Wide Left: A new spin on the Scott Norwood classic.

Super screw-ups. Game-changing failures that fans gnash their teeth over decades after the fact. Plays that, in the playoff clime of one-and-done, can turn an athlete's name into a curse word.

Understanding the fragility of circumstance is one of the ties that binds these athletes. It's about realizing how small the difference is between surrendering, or stopping, a game-winning touchdown; between kicking a routine chip shot or losing a playoff game with your foot.

As Gostkowski says, they can't play scared. They have to face their football mortality and move on.

"We're at the top of the professional level," he notes. "Everybody's had success before, everybody's dealt with failure before. It's the ones who get over the mistakes that play for a really long time."

The Patriots kicker didn't see Cundiff's miss. It was cold that night. When Gostkowski saw the Ravens' field-goal team trot out -- for a kickCundiff had practiced and executed so many times before --he busied himself warming up on New England's sideline for overtime.

"It's unfortunate. It's heartbreaking. This game is so publicized and so criticized . . . But that's just part of it," Gostkowski shrugs. "It humbles you to see that can happen to anybody; the guy was an All Pro last year. I'm 100 percent glad that we won, but I felt bad for him personally."

The reactions are not mutually exclusive; it's not simply, 'Better you than me.' Gostkowski started celebrating New England's Super Bowl berth as soon as he heard Patriots fans explode into cheers.

But Cundiff's condemnation as a goat brought Gostkowski no joy.

"It's one of the few things that I don't like about this job. We're so blessed, grateful for all the things that we've received, that we get to do, the job that we have. I feel bad, not only for the guys like Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams that it happens to, but for the people that send those messages out.

"I know how hard the players work; they probably feel worse than any of those people who are saying stuff to them."

An estimated 173 million people will be watching the Super Bowl this Sunday.

"I'm trying to treat it just like any other game," says defensive back Sterling Moore, "not put too much pressure on myself, just trying to keep a level head. But of course, there's going to be a little bit more pressure when you look up in the stands and realize this is the last game of the season. Everybody's watching this game."

Patriots versus Giants: Gladiators in the ring. One false move and you could be over. And the fans always go nuts for a kill-strike.

So it goes in the entertainment industry.

The Patriots want to fight, want to win. But their perspective of the sport, watching from the windows of their NFL fraternity, is different. Special teams captain Matthew Slater says it must be.

"At the end of the day, football doesn't define who we are. The type of character that we live our lives with off the field is really all that matters. This is a game -- a game that we love and put a lot into -- but it doesn't define who you are as a man. It's important to remember that."

Never more important than on Super Bowl Sunday. And never more difficult to do so.

Celtics move into No. 1 spot in East as Cavs get crushed by Spurs

Celtics move into No. 1 spot in East as Cavs get crushed by Spurs

SAN ANTONIO -- The Cavaliers acknowledged having heavy legs, yet there is something far weightier on the minds of the defending NBA champions.

Cleveland is in the midst of one of its worst stretches this season and there is little time to fix it.

Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the ailing Cavs 103-74 on Monday night in a much-anticipated showdown that turned into a major letdown for Cleveland.

"The way we've been struggling, (the Spurs are) the last team that you want to play," said LeBron James, who was fine after taking an elbow to the neck. "A well-oiled machine like this, they exploit everything that you're not doing well at that point in time of the season and right now we're not playing good basketball."

James, who finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes, said he will play Thursday at Chicago.

Cleveland (47-26) dropped its second in a row, set a season low for points and fell a half-game behind Boston (48-26) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Cavaliers have nine games remaining, all against teams in the East, including a visit to Boston on April 5.

James said the standings "always matter," but playing more consistently is far more important and he refused to blame injuries or an arduous schedule for the team's troubles.

"It matters more that we're playing better basketball than where we're at," he said. "If that results in us having the No. 1 seed, the No. 2 seed, 3 or whatever the hell it is, we need to play better basketball. That's what it comes down to."

What Cleveland is seeking, the Spurs have already found.

San Antonio (57-16) is two games behind Golden State (59-14) for the league's best record entering a home game against the Warriors on Wednesday.

The Spurs have won five straight and 8 of 10 after sweeping the season series with the Cavaliers.

"It was a big game, but in the end, it's just one game, and one win," San Antonio guard Tony Parker said. "We're trying to be consistent. We're trying to play the same way every game. It was definitely surprising. Coming off a loss, I thought they would play with a lot more energy, but it can happen. It's a long season. It's just one game and I'm sure they're going to bounce back and use this game as motivation."

LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol added 14 points apiece for the Spurs.

San Antonio led by as many as 33 to the delight of the sold-out crowd, and the Spurs' bench outscored the Cavaliers' reserves 49-24.

"We did a good job coming out early and then keeping our foot on the pedal," Leonard said.

Cleveland, which was already without injured Iman Shumpert, received more bad news Monday morning when it was announced that Kyle Korver will miss at least two more games with a sore left foot.

"You lose Korver and Shumpert off your bench and things tend to change," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. "With those two guys out, we tried some different things and it didn't work. It was not on the bench. It was on me."

Cleveland opted to play its stars rather than rest them, but the trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat out the fourth quarter of the Cav's second lopsided loss in the past two weeks.

Lue said he has considered resting his stars over the team's final nine games, which James is not in favor of.

"Coach is going to have his logic of things, but we need to play," he said.

James exited with 25 seconds remaining in the third after taking an elbow to his neck from David Lee on a rebound. James continually rubbed the area before collapsing after he crossed midcourt. He remained on the floor for about a minute before walking unassisted to the bench.

James left for the locker room early in the fourth quarter during a timeout, but said afterward he is fine.


Irving returned to the court for about 15 minutes following the loss to work on his jump shot. The star guard had eight points and two assists in 26 minutes. He finished 4 for 13 from the field and missed his two 3-point attempts.


Cavaliers: Cleveland completed its schedule against the West, finishing 16-14. In addition to losing to the Spurs by 29 points, the Cavaliers lost by 35 to Golden State and 30 to the Los Angeles Clippers . . . James needs 24 points to pass Shaquille O'Neal for seventh overall in career scoring. O'Neal has 28,596 career points . . . The Cavaliers averaged 116.3 points in their previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio is holding opponents under 100 points per game for the 22nd straight season . . . Danny Green tied his season high with four blocked shots . . . Leonard has scored in double figures in 100 straight games.


Cavaliers: At the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night.

Spurs: Host the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night.

Bertrand: Raptors a 'scary team' in the Eastern Conference

Bertrand: Raptors a 'scary team' in the Eastern Conference

Mike Felger and Marc Bertrand talk about the Celtics clinching the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference and other potential threats for the C's.